Korean Peasants Sow the Seeds of Nation’s Food Sovereignty

By Taryn Assaf

“Korea is Samsung, and Samsung is Korea”. This phrase is commonly heard and almost religiously believed by much of South Korea’s urban population. Much of what outsiders know about South Korea is Samsung, and taken from a purely economic perspective, that’s not so hard to believe: the top 30 Korean corporations make up 82 percent of the country’s exports, with Samsung being the largest. Not so long ago, South Korea was a different world entirely. Rewind to the 1970s and you’d find a population of 50 percent farmers compared to just 6.2 percent today. You’d find an economy sustained by the agricultural, rather than the technology, sector. You’d find a country that was 80 percent food self-sufficient compared to fifty percent in 2012, (however, if we take away rice and grains, the self sufficiency rate drops to a staggering six percent)[i] the lowest among OECD nations. What this has meant for Korean farmers is a total loss of livelihood; what it means for Korean citizens is a near complete reliance on foreign foodstuffs, which, as evidenced by the 2007 global food crisis, can lead to shortages and price hikes, tightening the already stretched average household budget.

Farming in Korea began its decline in the 1980s when the United States began applying pressure on South Korea to dismantle trade barriers that had, until then, protected its domestic agricultural sector. With the threat of trade sanctions, Korea opened its markets to US beef, wine, tobacco and rice. Facing large deficits in trade, and realizing it no longer needed to use its food surpluses to strengthen Cold War alliances, the US argued that agriculture should be incorporated into trade negotiations. The World Trade Organization (WTO) began pressuring the world’s farming sectors to open their markets to global competition. In 1994, Korea entered the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA)[ii] with the WTO, welcoming the near demise of its agricultural sector. This forced the government to eliminate quotas and tariffs on agricultural imports from the US and European Union, which both subsidize their farmers and agribusinesses to the combined sum of $1 billion a day. After the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the International Monetary Fund imposed further liberalization policies on Korea’s agricultural sector, hurling Korean small farmers out of competition (and for many, out of business entirely). All of this has resulted in a four-fold debt increase – an average of approximately $30,000 USD – in farming households since 1995, which continues to rise. What only forty years ago was a thriving industry is no longer a viable way of life, and Koreans must fight to hold on to their right to farm and their right to food.

As a result of bad industry and agricultural policies, food is treated as a commodity rather than a human right. The right to

Jeomok Bak receives the Food Sovereignty Prize (Stuart Ramson/Insider Images for WhyHunger)

Jeomok Bak receives the Food Sovereignty Prize (Stuart Ramson/Insider Images for WhyHunger)

healthy and culturally appropriate food produced sustainably and according to a people’s own agricultural system – a concept otherwise known as food sovereignty – is continually undermined by structural barriers caused by market demands, corporations and complicit governments. Therefore, prioritizing the needs and livelihoods of food producers, distributors and consumers is central to a sovereign food system. Korea’s peasant farming population has been a world leader in reclaiming that system. In October 2012, the Korean Women Peasants Association (KWPA) was awarded the Food Sovereignty Prize (FSP) by the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance. The FSP was developed as an alternative to the more famously known World Food Prize.[iii] It celebrates small farmers and other food producers who use socially just, environmentally sustainable and economically viable production systems. The KWPA coordinates and carries out a number of activities throughout Korea designed to empower women through the process of sustainable farming.

One of KWPA’s main initiatives is empowering women peasants through indigenous seed preservation. Indigenous seed preservation was traditionally the responsibility of women as a consequence of the conventional division of labor on the farm. According to Hyo-Jeong Kim in her conference paper, “Food Sovereignty: A critical Diologue”, “the seed economy was a women’s economy”. During Korea’s Green Revolution in the 1970s, government policies that promoted and favored industrial farming led to the loss of women’s indigenous skill and knowledge. The practice of seed preservation became nearly extinct as industrial farming methods became the norm (buying seeds, fertilizer and soil; using heavy machinery, and increasing crop yields). Not only was this a loss of expertise, it was a loss of women’s empowerment. Native seeds and their crops embody the knowledge and skills of women peasant farmers, so to disregard that knowledge is to erase a large element of women’s agency on the farm. Despite the erasure of seed preservation from modern agriculture, many women held on to the practice. To sustain KWPA’s initiative, therefore, requires that that knowledge be passed down from the now elderly women peasant population to the younger farming generation, which is only familiar with industrial farming methods. Making seed preservation once more a priority in agriculture means making women’s knowledge and instinct a priority; it means transferring power from seed manufacturing companies back to women.

img_sisters_gardenSister’s Garden Plot (SGP), for instance, aims to connect consumers to women food producers who collectively grow and deliver weekly, biweekly and monthly packages of organic produce and other homemade products to consumers’ doorsteps. They also sell organic sesame oil and soy sauce, among other a-la-carte items, on their website. SGP currently operates 26 farm communities throughout Korea. The program aims to create a solution to the crises caused by neoliberalism and a globalized food production system. From their website, “SGP believes in sustainable, organic farming, in protecting and preserving biodiversity, in safeguarding native seeds, and in realizing peasants’ rights.” In doing so, they are reclaiming their right to a food production system that puts power back in the hands of producers and consumers. Also from their website, “As a result of their efforts, women peasants in these communities take pride as women peasants and have achieved greater social recognition in their homes and villages”.

KWPA is not the only, nor the first, organization in Korea leading the alternative agriculture movement. Hansalim began in 1986 as Korea’s first agricultural cooperative and is now the largest such cooperative in the world, boasting close to 400,000 household memberships and 2000 food producers. They believe in a healthy exchange between rural producers and urban consumers through the purchase of products and through tours, cooperation activities, education programs and campaigns. To build trust between consumers and producers, Hansalim offers an “Autonomous Check System” whereby consumers and producers can go through the production process together. This is meant to ensure transparency and quality, thus developing relationships with farmers and their products.

Hansalim offers a wide variety of products, ranging from living and household items to fresh produce to processed foods (seasonings, snacks, and side dishes). To protect food sovereignty, they support all domestic producers, not only those who use organic methods (some use low levels of pesticides, although priority is given to organic producers) and focuses solely hansalim reciepton local items. Livestock producers, for instance, use domestically grown barley to feed their livestock, bypassing the need to rely on grain imports and securing 400 hectares of barley producing land. Additionally, each product comes with a label detailing the number of kilometers traveled and the amount of carbon emissions saved in comparison to a similar imported product. The focus on local allows members to experiment with seasonal products and re-acquaint themselves with the traditional food culture.

To make shopping easy and convenient for its busy, urban customers, Hansalim offers home delivery options in addition to its 154 stores across the country. They even offer an app for iPhone and Android, through which users can access seasonal food information and Hansalim news, among other features.

Re-building Korea into a food sovereign nation is, by no means, easy. Cooperatives like Hansalim and organizations like the Korean Women Peasants Association embody the true meaning of food sovereignty, where priority is given to local production for local markets, based on local knowledge and resources. Many CSAs have sprouted up in response to the success of others – Gachi CSA (formerly WWOOF CSA), for instance, targets English speakers in Korea. Movements like these re-prioritize the lost relationship between consumers and producers in ways that ensure a dignified income for the farmers whose livelihoods have been eaten into by free trade and neoliberalism. They stand up for marginalized groups and stand against the environmentally degrading practices of large-scale industrial farming. Peasant farmers in Korea are nurturing the crops of sustainable agriculture with love and care, and are reclaiming a food system they can truly call their own.

[i] Anders Riel Mueller, The Fight for Real Food in Korea, Korean Quarterly, Winter 2012

[ii] The AoA is “the economic engine for promoting industrial agriculture — replacing family farmers with agribusiness, family farms with corporate farms, and biodiversity with monocropping.” Anuradha Mittal, Losing the Farm: How Corporate Globalization Pushes Millions off Land and Into Desperation; The Multinational Monitor, July/August 2003, 24(7/8)

[iii] The World Food Prize celebrates increased agricultural production through the use of industrial agriculture. Its recipients have included Monsanto’s Executive Vice President, Robert Fraley, for work developing GMO crops used in the U.S. Critics of the WFP state that it champions pro-GMO corporate agribusiness and the corporate owned global food system.

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An Open Letter to Farmers

By Kellyn Gross

An Open Letter to My Hosts at Jiam:

Annyeong haseyo. Hello. My name is Kellyn. I visited your community last month along with other expats as part of the ISC media team.  Shin Yong Cheol, your family welcomed us into its home and to volunteer on the small farm that you started with the lily grower, Hyeong Taek Bae—who has a wonderfully mischievous smile and an infectious laugh.  Your wives fed us like royalty, and I slept on a warm ondol floor next to your gracious wife and only infant son.  He woke us at times with his cries of hunger, as babies are inclined to do. But no matter. Being privy to your intimate lives was educational.  It was humbling.

Not many personal stories were shared during that weekend, for which I understand. Farming is your business, and we had a language barrier.  You utilized our free labor as much as possible because anything helps the bottom line in your precarious line of work.  Conducting interviews about the socioeconomic aspects of Korean farming seemed rather unfitting given that we needed to meticulously plant 20, then 21, then 23 rows of bok choi starts in your greenhouse.  Growing crops is difficult and often unrewarding work.  You don’t need an interview to determine that, but to discover it firsthand.

Nonetheless, I was fine to end planting that first day and join you all for a homemade dak galbi dinner.  The Korean Peasants League leaders gave encouraging introductions, and the farmers’ words were eloquent even before the soju started flowing.  I was reminded not to romanticize the plight of Korean farmers, as much as just see you for who you are: mothers and fathers; daughters and sons; sisters and brothers; wives, husbands and friends trying your best to put food on the table and enjoy life’s simple beauty.

Connection and simplicity was what I needed at that time.  I’d like to share why.

I was irritable that Sunday evening following our farm visit because I was hungry and tired from lack of sleep and a hangover.  But my irritability was quickly replaced with anger due to my job.  I arrived at my middle school on Monday as I usually do, sleepy but ready to seize the day. My students are challenging, so I must rely on sheer moxie to engage them. Yet even more than usual, my students were unmoved. My generally helpful co-teacher was even apathetic, and my schedule was changed without notice.  As the week progressed, my work difficulties multiplied at my elementary and high schools as well.  Two days of canceled classes for Sports Day were reinstated, so I had to teach classes on a whim with no co-teachers.  Three open classes were sprung on me, and I had to produce one open-class lesson plan in short order.  Subsequently, I couldn’t keep up with any of my district-coordinator duties or my articles for the ISC media team.

People’s attitudes and these unforeseen changes made my work week maddening, but the real reason for my anger was what was implicit in these situations.  I was angry because for you and the old women working on your farms, you might not have had the choice to do such manual labor.  Living through the 1930s or the 1970s as children, you might not have had the choice to do anything else as adults given your backgrounds. And I don’t doubt that you have seen and lived through some incredibly challenging ordeals as farmers. Incredibly.  Yet you continue to tend your crops at sunrise each and every day in order to feed your family members and put a roof over their heads.

On the contrary, I had the disheartening experience to stand in front of a classroom of middle schoolers who were born in the 1990s and are oblivious to the choices they do have over their futures.  They have choices, and yet they are more concerned with k-pop and cellphone games then being engaged in their learning or their society–complaining to me about being tired from staying up too late watching TV dramas. Tired, I thought. Try standing in a greenhouse for up to 10 hours a day as an 82-year-old. 

Even when I broached the subject of our farm visit and the implications of rice imports flooding into Korea in 2014, my co-teacher was uneasy and wouldn’t interpret for my students.  It was too much for me in light of visiting you, and it reinforced what I have always struggled with during my time here—and what I will struggle with when I return to the USA: social inequality.

Teachers I work with in public schools are far removed from the daily lives of farmers, even if we largely commute to work in rural areas.  Some colleagues grew up poor on farms themselves, and yet they tell me that they don’t concern themselves with agricultural issues.  For my middle school students living in an insular ski-resort town, they are ignorant and ambivalent about the social and economic sacrifices generations have made before and for them. Complacency is what is taught, so it seems, because their very educators are complacent.

Because most of my coworkers became teachers not to inspire, but to be hired into a profession that is both lucrative and secure.  And in the past almost three years of my living in Gangwondo–my working with 13 different Korean English teachers–I have only stepped into a co-teacher’s home on three occasions. We hadn’t known you, Mr. Shin, more than five minutes when you opened your home to us and fed everyone lavishly for two days.  Again, I’m humbled by that experience.  The generosity of you and your friends reinforced my belief that farmers and the working class are the backbone, conscience, hope and lifeblood of society.

This is not without my own dilemma and feeling of shame.

When I was dipping each and every bok choi seedling into the cold water tubs in preparation for planting, Mr. Hyeong said to me: How much money do you make? I think you make more money than us farmers. You are rich in Korea.  My answer was probably unsatisfactory, Mr. Hyeong, but I tried.

You see, I’ve been asked this question too numerous to count in Korea.  Each time I feel ashamed, but I can’t deny a response.  I’m answering truthfully when I say that I make about 2.3 million won each month after taxes.  Wealth eludes me in the scheme of things, but it’s a fact. My salary here is higher as a foreigner than the average monthly income of 1.5 million won for Koreans.  This privilege is a consequence of my being an American English-speaker.  And I can’t really complain when said privilege affords me far more opportunities than most in the world.

Yet, I’m human. I hurt as a teacher when I’m unsuccessful in the classroom. I hurt when I can’t relate to my coworkers because of differing values.  I hurt when I witness inequality because I’m so intrinsically a part of it.  My intention was to make some cash, travel and teach in Korea.  I also wanted a cultural exchange, and to do right by my host country while enjoying a sojourn. But it hasn’t always been what I expected, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Nonetheless, meeting people like you in Jiam keeps me sane in Korea.  People like you give me hope and courage to do better by myself and by others.  And in the case of the lily farmer, Hyeong Taek Bae, people like you give me flowers.  And they blossom long after our time together, reminding me of the dignity of life and the value of hard work.  Kamsahamnida.  Thank you.

Respectfully yours,

Kellyn Gross

 

Equality and Heaven on Earth

by Dae Han Song

The Donghak Uprising marked a pivotal moment in Korean history: in 1894, peasants rose up against a corrupt and exploitative government and declared the equality of all people. Unable to put down the mass uprising, the ruling class betrayed its people and invited Chinese forces into the country, which provoked a Japanese invasion leading to the end of the Donghak Uprising and the beginning of one of Korea’s darkest periods: Japanese colonization. Yet, despite its tragic end, the Donghak Uprising’s struggle for a just and equal society laid the foundation for Korean modernization and democracy.

The uprising took place in a period of growing Japanese and Western intervention and influence, economic polarization between wealthy farmers and peasants, and the growing exploitation and extortion of peasants by corrupt government officials. In response to this unrest, the Donghak (Korean for “eastern learning”) religion emerged in 1860. It preached the equality of all people and a heaven on Earth, thereby gaining great traction among the highly exploited peasantry.

A peasant revolt in the Gobu Province in 1894 (in what is now Jeongeup city) sparked the Donghak Uprising. The Gobu governor extorted high taxes from the peasants and forced them to build the Manseokbo reservoir, even though another water reservoir already existed. He then levied water taxes on its usage. This led to the initial peasant revolt that would lead to the Donghak Uprising.

In 1893, Donghak leader Jeon-Bong Jun and others drafted a plan of revolt to organize and stir the peasants into revolt. The document contains and justifies a plan of action. It is named Sabaltongmun (document of porcelain cup) due to the way the leaders’ signatures were arranged: a porcelain cup was placed on the document and leaders signed around it.

IMG_1525

Tae-gil, our museum guide, explains the leaflet – a plan of revolt – used to organize peasants against the Gobu Governor.

In response to the call for revolt, thousands of farmers gathered at Malmok marketplace around a persimmon tree where Jeon Beong Jun read the Sabaltongmun (the plan for revolt).

IMG_1566

Picture depicting peasants gathered at Malmok marketplace as they ready to revolt

The remains of the original persimmon tree in the lobby of the Memorial Museum

Another persimmon tree was planted after the previous one had been removed.

Another persimmon tree was planted after the previous one was removed

As their first act of revolt, the peasants destroyed the Manseokbo Reservoir and then took over the Gobu government office. In response to the revolt, the Gobu governor was replaced and conciliatory gestures were made towards the peasants. However, Donghak followers were persecuted as instigators of the revolt. In response, Donghak leaders Jeon Bong-Jun, San Hwa-Jung, and Kim Gae-Nam gathered together and built a large peasant army. They occupied Gobu castle and set-up camp. More peasants soon gathered, swelling the Peasant Army ranks. The Peasant Army then decided to march to and take over Jeonju castle. On their way, they engaged with Jeonju government troops in Hwangtohyun.

Site of the destroyed Maseokbo reservoir

Site of the destroyed Maseokbo reservoir

Our museum guide, the great-grandson of a peasant commander, retells the battle of Hwangtohyun

Our museum guide, the great-grandson of a peasant commander, retells the battle of Hwangtohyun

The government’s troops had been stationed on top of Hwangtohyun hill preparing to attack. Below the hill the village bustled with activity, but as night set, it became quiet. Believing the villagers to have retired to rest, the soldiers attempted an attack, only to encounter an ambush by the peasants.

Site of the Hwangtonhyun Battle and Old Memorial Center

Site of the Hwangtonhyun Battle and Old Memorial Center

The Donghak peasants scored their first victory in Hwangtonhyun. Fighting with a few fusillades, farming implements, and sharpened bamboo sticks, many peasants died against the more sophisticated firepower used by the government’s troops. However, their greater numbers and the use of a rolling bamboo shield stuffed with rice chaff helped them achieve victory.

Peasants rolling bamboo shields with sticks  and launching into hand to hand combat once near soldiers

Peasants rolling bamboo shields with sticks and launching into hand to hand combat once near soldiers

Miniaturized rolling bamboo shield

Miniaturized rolling bamboo shield

After a second victory in Hwangyongcheon, the Peasant Army captured Jeonju castle. In response, the royal court asked the Chinese for reinforcements. Japan then used China’s entry into Korea as a pretext for invasion. Aware of the threat of a war erupting in Korea between China and Japan, the peasants ended their uprising, compromising with the Korean government for reforms, eventually returning home.  However, once the peasant army was demobilized, the Japanese attempted to take over the Korean government. The peasants once again rose up to fight, but the Japanese, with their superior weaponry, defeated the poorly armed peasants.

Replica machine gun used by Japanese forces against the Donghak army

Replica machine gun used by Japanese forces against the Donghak army

The leaders of the Donghak army were eventually forced into hiding; however, Jeon Beong Jun was captured after being betrayed by a fellow soldier.

Photo of a scowling Jeon Beong Jun, bound and secured on a pallet after having his legs beaten

Photo of a scowling Jeon Beong Jun, bound and secured on a pallet after having his legs beaten

The captured peasant army leaders

The captured peasant army leaders

A model of Jeong-Bong Jun's interrogation by Korean and Japanese officials

A model of Jeong-Bong Jun’s interrogation by Korean and Japanese officials

Ultimately, the uprising failed, yet the Donghak struggle for justice and equality continues to be a source of inspiration for Korea’s peasant movement still fighting for a society where peasants can live in dignity.

Since no bodies were recovered, this tomb only houses the spirits of the Donghak leaders

Since no bodies were recovered, this tomb only houses the spirits of the Donghak leaders

At the gravesite of the peasant army leaders

A stone engraved with the picture of Jeon Bong Jun, at  the gravesite of the peasant army leaders

Our taxi driver explains the contents of a marble column  inscribed with the words of the original Sabaltongmun while a participant (the author) brings along the spirit of another revolutionary, Hugo Chavez

Our taxi driver explains the contents of a marble column inscribed with the words of the original Sabaltongmun while a participant (the author) brings along the spirit of another revolutionary, Hugo Chavez

Jeon Beong Jun's home- a clay structure with thatched roof

Jeon Beong Jun’s home- a clay structure with thatched roof

What does the year 1894 have to do with Korea’s food security?

by Taryn Assaf


A Call to Arms

The people are the root of the nation. If the root withers, the nation will be enfeebled. Heedless of their responsibility for sustaining the state and providing for its people, the officials build lavish residences in the countryside, scheming to ensure their own well-being at the expense of the resources of the nation. How can this be viewed as proper? We are wretched village people far from the capital, yet we feed and clothe ourselves with the bounty from the sovereign’s land. We cannot sit by and watch our nation perish. The whole nation is as one, its multitudes united in their determination to raise the righteous standard of revolt, and to pledge their lives to sustain the state and provide for the livelihood of the people. However startling the action we take today may seem, you must not be troubled by it. For as we felicitously live out the tranquil years ahead, each man secure in his occupation – when all the people can enjoy the blessings of benevolent kingly rule, how immeasurably joyful will we be!

This proclamation was written by the leaders of the Tonghak peasant army, a group that formed out of the Tonghak religion. It was first sent out to Korean peasant farmers in 1894, and it embodies the struggles of farmers at the time and foreshadows the problems to be faced by farmers in the future. It is a call to arms- an ultimatum. It says, we can not allow ourselves to be exploited by the rich any longer. We can not sit idly by while our brothers and sisters are forced deeper and deeper into debt and poverty. We will not allow the rich to diminish our humanly worth by taking advantage of our livelihoods. We must fight this oppression, or die because of it.  Who were these peasants and what led them to the point of rebellion?

The Tonghak religion formed in the 1860’s in opposition to the ideals and exploitative nature of the yangban (the ruling class) and foreign influence in Korea, most notably Western missionaries and Japanese merchants that threatened the Korean peasant’s way of life. It combined aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shamanism and rejected Western Catholicism. In addition to its religious foundations, Tonghak was a social movement that advocated for the improvement of peasants’ conditions, an end to the exploitation of peasants by the yangban and reform of the corrupt government. The religion and its ideals became very popular among the peasantry, as it strongly advocated equality among all people (the religion stated that even man and God were created equal once man understood the equality of all people). Peasant farmers in central Jeolla province strongly identified with this belief and the religion and movement as a whole. The peasants here were lucky to farm on what was considered to be Korea’s agricultural goldmine, and yet they were concurrently suffocating with debt from especially unsympathetic tax policies enacted by the local government—money which went straight into the pockets of the local Governor. For instance, exploitive miscellaneous taxes were applied to anticipated rice shortages, anticipated rice spillages and anticipated loss of rice during transport; a 10 percent interest was applied to loans for grain at the time of repayment; and Governors falsified records and distorted numerical figures on grain repayments. These abuses were so detrimental that 30-40% of all peasant households in 1893 did not have enough grain to last for 4 months after harvest and 70% of the population was unable to stock food for the entire year. The shared oppressive experience and a vision for a just and democratic future  led to the Tonghak peasant rebellion of 1894. The Tonghak peasant army was initially successful in its mission for change- they temporarily occupied the city of Jeonju and negotiated a truce with the government on the condition that economic and social reforms be implemented.  However, the pause in conflict that came with negotiations eventually worked against the Tonghak army.  The Korean government had called in both the Chinese and Japanese forces to help quell the Tonghak army, the momentary ceasefire giving way to the Sino-Japanese War and the eventual Japanese occupation of Korea.

The Tonghak saw and understood that their way of life as farmers, their right to having a decent livelihood, and their dignity as human beings was being exploited for profit. They understood that the government was not on the side of the people, and was not interested in being a government that the common people supported. They opposed upper-class practices that benefitted the wealthy and strangled those below them. They fought for a future they believed in, one characterized by equality for all people. A future where everyone had the right to a decent living, and where the prerogative of one class was not maintained at the expense of another. The same sentiments can be felt by farmers globally today, who in the face of WTO agreements, IMF and World Bank conditionalities, and multinational agribusiness, are still struggling in much the same way as their Tonghak brothers and sisters. Increasing dependency on foreign food markets, decreasing food self sufficiency and security, decreasing farmer populations, decreasing arable land and fertile soil and increasing debt among small farmers are some of the problems facing the agricultural sector. The human right to farm is under seige, and thus the livelihoods of millions of people in the world today.

Tonghak Today

The agricultural sector in Korea is in crisis. Farmers are being suffocated by debt and have their hands tied by trade agreements. Food sovereignty is defined by Via Campesina as the “human right for all peoples and nations to grow food in ways that are culturally, ecologically and economically appropriate for them.” Korea’s food sovereignty is being threatened. Farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living from farming alone; as the influx of foreign agricultural imports increases, domestic products fall out of competition and the market becomes increasingly dependent on those imports. As a nation’s food sovereignty decreases, its food self-sufficiency (the degree to which a country is self-sufficient in producing its own food) also decreases. For instance, as of 2004, Korea’s food self-sufficiency rate was 25.3%. However, taking rice out of the equation, the number drops to an appalling three percent. This is due to the opening of Korea’s markets to global agricultural products. Rice is currently the only product not open to the global market. However, Korea’s rice sector is schedule to open in 2014. Currently, Korea imports 90% of its food products and is the fifth largest importer of U.S agricultural products. The same trends can be found in most countries worldwide that have entered into a WTO Agreement on Agriculture (AOA) or a free trade agreement with the U.S. Once an agreement is ratified, a country must open its economy to foreign products. And with the U.S. and European Union’s markets already completely saturated and heavily subsidized by about $1 billion a day, peasant and family farmers around the world without similar subsidies are simply unable to compete. The AOA has become a new form of imperialism over small farmers worldwide, as it has shifted the control of global food security into the hands of big agribusiness and corporate elites. Since Korea’s opening of its markets in 1995, the state of farming and of farmers has sufficiently declined. For instance, in 1970, Korea’s food self-sufficiency rate was 80.5%; its farming population has decreased from over 14 million in 1970 to just over 3 million in 2004; and debt increased four fold to an average of $30,000 per household in 2003. With the Korean agricultural sector increasingly controlled by foreign powers, the concerns of Tonghak are still true today.

Yet peasants continue to be at the forefront of their own struggles. Korean peasant’s philosophies have remained largely unchanged since the days of Tonghak, even as the methods of exploitation against them continue to evolve. At the WTO conference held in Cancun in 2003, a Korean farmer named Lee Kyung Hae climbed a chain link fence wearing a sign that read “WTO kills farmers” and stabbed himself in the heart. His self immolation was a call to arms for millions of peasants worldwide who are forced off their land and driven into poverty by free trade policies.

During WTO talks in Hong Kong in 2005, one thousand Korean farmers called for an end to WTO in agriculture. 50 of them jumped into the freezing cold waters of Victoria Harbor in an attempt to reach the conference hall. Again in 2005, hundreds of thousands of farmers and citizens protested Korean imports of U.S beef. Founded in 2009, the Sisters Garden Plot sends locally grown and harvested seasonal produce by women peasant farmers to subscribers year round in an effort to achieve greater food sovereignty in South Korea.

With the imminent opening of Korea’s rice markets next year, the Korean Peasant’s League has stated that they “will struggle and prevent it at the risk of [their] lives because rice is [their] final livelihood and destiny.” It seems imperative at this time to do what is absolutely necessary to maintain what little food sovereignty Korea has left and to support and encourage local organizations in the struggle to challenge the WTO and rebuild Korea as a food sovereign nation. The spirit of Tonghak must be resurrected; we must not allow farmers to perish- in Korea and around the world- for when a nation’s food security, sovereignty and self-sufficiency are threatened, its people are also threatened. Indeed, the Tonghak peasants knew that the people are the root of the nation. If the root withers, the nation will be enfeebled.